More than most cocktails, the Last Word has a split personality. The mix of gin, maraschino liqueur, green Chartreuse and lime juice is an old drink, invented before Prohibition struck. But it is also a new drink, having only really been discovered and embraced by bartenders and drinkers alike in the last 15 years. You can’t even call it a comeback cocktail, because, in order to have a comeback, you had to have been something to begin with. The Last Word was nothing and nowhere until the 21st century.
All thanks for its current currency—or blame, depending on your viewpoint—goes to Murray Stenson, a veteran Seattle bartender who spotted the drink in an old copy of Bottoms Up! (1951), tested it, liked it and, in 2004, put it on the menu at Zig Zag Cafe, where he was working at the time. Word (ahem) of the drink spread through the nascent cocktail community, and it was soon being served in New York and elsewhere, attaining the status of “bartender’s handshake”—that is, a cult cocktail that, when ordered, communicates your in-the-know-ness to all barkeeps and booze enthusiasts within earshot.
It is, of course, no longer a cult cocktail. It is a classic cocktail, a drink that is constantly riffed upon (the Paper Plane, Final Ward, Naked & Famous and Division Bell are all modern takes on it), and one you can get at any self-respecting cocktail cove. A good number of those bars, in fact, have taken up the drink as their very name, including ones in New York City, Ann Arbor, Edinburgh and, until recently, San Antonio.
With the drink so ubiquitous, we felt it high time to go in search of the last word on the Last Word. Joining myself as judges were bartenders Karin Stanley (Existing Conditions), Joaquín Simó (Pouring Ribbons) and Thad Vogler (Bar Agricole and Trou Normand). Together, they tasted through 12 versions of the sour culled from bartenders across the United States, including a recipe from Murray Stenson himself.
It was a tough room for the drink; somewhat surprisingly, there wasn’t a lot of love evident for the Last Word. Like the Aviation, another one-time “bartender’s handshake,” the cocktail seems to have suffered a backlash in bartending circles in recent years.
Simó called the blend of ingredients, “Chaos. There isn’t a single shrinking violet in the mix. Every ingredient is a haymaker.” Stanley took issue with the maraschino liqueur: “Love Chartreuse, hate maraschino,” she said. “Maraschino drives me up the wall.” Vogler, meanwhile, suggested that it's past its prime. “No, I don’t think it’s a favorite of any of ours,” he said. “It was one of the first new-old drinks. It had a relevance at a certain point in time.”
With this skeptical attitude, we plunged into the tasting and, against all odds, found a thing or two to like. The Last Word is famously an equal-parts cocktail, and the panel believed the proportions should be honored. But those parts can be subtly adjusted. Simó was an advocate of using overproof gin to allow that spirit more of a chance to stand up to the powerful flavors of the other ingredients. Stanley approved of cutting back the maraschino liqueur to half and making up for the volume with simple syrup. And Vogler thought, given the brute strength of the spirits involved, proper dilution of the cocktail was important.
All assembled agreed that the drink, despite its weighty components, should be light and bright and have a clean, dry, crisp finish. “That’s the quality of a good sour,” said Simó. Above all, the judges looked for balance. Any participating recipe that tasted too much of any one of the ingredients—save the gin—was quickly rejected.
Despite the initial pessimism, the tasting had a fairy tale ending of sorts: the Last Word from The Last Word, a cocktail bar in Astoria, Queens, won top honors. The recipe, by Paddy O’Brien, was straightforward aside from the gin. O'Brien leaned on the fairly obscure Warwick Rustic Gin, a juniper-forward craft spirit from New York State, and bumped up the volume from three-quarters of an ounce to a full one ounce. The judges found it piquant and well-integrated, with a creamy middle palate and pleasing, lower-register notes throughout.
Second place went to Tom Macy of Clover Club, a frequent victor in PUNCH cocktail tastings. His gin of choice was Tanqueray No. 10. But the twist that perhaps nudged his mix to the front of the pack was the Jack-Rose-like trick of splitting the citrus element between lime and lemon juice. “Everything seems to be speaking in turn,” observed Simó. “Everything has a moment in the sun.” (Macy, apparently concurring with Vogler’s dilution thesis, instructed that the drink be shaken “a little longer than you normally would.”)
Ranking third was Erik Adkins of San Francisco, who also went for Tanqueray No. 10, but kept his citrus wholly lime. The judges found it balanced, juicy and bright. Just missing the mark, but nonetheless appreciated, were Last Words from Meghan Dorman of Raines Law Room and Dear Irving and Murray Stenson himself, both of whom opted for standard Tanqueray.
Faced with these superior versions of the cocktail, the hard hearts of the judges warmed up to the drink.
“I hated it less than I thought I would,” declared Stanley.